Locke and political vs. social freedom

One of the parts I like best about the Urban Education PhD program at CUNY is that the majority of our coursework is self-selected, defined by our research direction(s) and academic and professional interests. Because the program is interdisciplinary, intermingling education, sociology, political science, history, psychology, and other fields, scope becomes a simple question of how much a student can incorporate into her work.

Modern Political Thought is a course that counts as an elective for me, though that word seems to have connotations of an afterthought, a breeze. On the contrary: we’re reading Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Hegel, four foundational thinkers in political philosophy whose impact continues to be very much a part of modern existence. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is our current text, a discussion of liberalism in its early form and a refutation of the arguments put forth by Hobbes and other thinkers of the 17th century that an absolute unified power was the only means by which human beings would be saved from their violent nature.

In class today we discussed the difference between political freedom and social freedom, political equality and social equality. Nowadays this sounds ridiculous, especially if using a feminist or critical race theory lens: How can one be politically free if one is not socially free? If I am oppressed by modern social realities, how can I have equal access to political agency?

Locke helped write the first American state constitution in 1669 for North Carolina (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/nc05.asp); a century later, the force of his ideas founded the political definitions by which the American colonists could conceive of a free political existence beyond England’s reach. In modern times Locke’s work may seem simplistic, elitist, or just irrelevant. But it’s an interesting exercise to try to consider such a view especially in light of our country’s foundational texts. Our constitution is the oldest one still in existence in the world; while we prize it highly in its modern applications, it is rooted in a certain form of thinking (anti-absolutist, pro-private property, etc.) from centuries past. Why and how does this continue to inform modern American discourse, policy, and culture?


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